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Can't improvise!


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#1 jelly roll harris

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Posted 26 April 2012 - 18:18

I've been doing jazz piano for a while now, but for the life of me I just can't seem to improvise. I have a reasonably good grasp of harmony, my fingers are reasonably nimble, but I just can't seem to produce anything remotely melodic-my attempts sound clunky and wooden, and lacking in imagination. Oddly, after a couole of stiff gins, blink.gif my playing improves. I wonder therefore whether my problem may be one of relaxation rather than competence. Any one else experience this and if so, any tips?

I also feel I lack focus sometimes; I'm not working towards anything, just doodling about for my own amusement.

Thanks for your thoughts!

Jelly
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#2 TSax

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Posted 26 April 2012 - 19:35

Yes, I find that alcohol can help my improvising! I think it frees me up to put more of myself into my playing rather than holding back. It's why I don't mind having a drink for a small band gig where the biggest challenge is the soloing, but I won't for big band gigs where I have to play the right notes at the right time with the right dynamics and articulation.

Can you scat sing something melodic? and then try translating your singing to your instrument? I think one aim is to hear something in your head and translate it to your instrument as instantaneously as you can to your voice.
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#3 jelly roll harris

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Posted 27 April 2012 - 10:09

Thanks for the tip on the singing. I have ideas, but invariably I get them in the bath/car/ at work where there is no keyboard handy, and by the time I get to the piano the moment has passed. Must be far more difficult playing sax, though! Do you have anything on youtube? Good luck with the playing. Jelly.
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#4 BadStrad

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Posted 27 April 2012 - 11:07

QUOTE(jelly roll harris @ Apr 26 2012, 07:18 PM) View Post
I also feel I lack focus sometimes; I'm not working towards anything, just doodling about for my own amusement.
Oh this sounds sooooo familiar. My teacher dragged me kicking and screaming towards improvisation (on the violin). I thought improv was "Self indulgent clap-trap" and "a waste of time when there's all that notated music I could be playing - so why bother making stuff up?" You get the picture. . . blush.gif It was totally out of my comfort zone and like you felt like doodling.

The approach we work with is the same as TSax suggests. Hear the tune (improv) in my head and then play it. It's taken a while, I still don't always get it right, but it's certainly getting easier. For me the rhythmic element is hardest - the melody line is much easier.

FWiW - OH used to work as an accompanist at a dance school and was frequently put on the spot with "I want sixteen bars, 4/4 with such and such a rhythm." He said his early attempts were pretty woeful, but having to do it day in, day out he quickly got better at it. So I guess like all things - practice makes perfect.

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#5 Little Elf

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Posted 27 April 2012 - 12:22

QUOTE(BadStrad @ Apr 27 2012, 12:07 PM) View Post

FWiW - OH used to work as an accompanist at a dance school and was frequently put on the spot with "I want sixteen bars, 4/4 with such and such a rhythm." He said his early attempts were pretty woeful, but having to do it day in, day out he quickly got better at it. So I guess like all things - practice makes perfect.

I think faced with that situation I'd be doing an awful lot of I - IV - V - I smile.gif
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#6 TSax

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Posted 28 April 2012 - 20:39

QUOTE(BadStrad @ Apr 27 2012, 12:07 PM) View Post

So I guess like all things - practice makes perfect.


Oh yes, just as much practising required for improvising as any other kind of music.
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#7 CJB

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Posted 28 April 2012 - 21:44

QUOTE(TSax @ Apr 26 2012, 08:35 PM) View Post

Yes, I find that alcohol can help my improvising! I think it frees me up to put more of myself into my playing rather than holding back. It's why I don't mind having a drink for a small band gig where the biggest challenge is the soloing, but I won't for big band gigs where I have to play the right notes at the right time with the right dynamics and articulation.

Can you scat sing something melodic? and then try translating your singing to your instrument? I think one aim is to hear something in your head and translate it to your instrument as instantaneously as you can to your voice.


Sounds familiar. I discovered under the influence of red wine that I could bend notes, do lip slurs and really wide vibrato..........I then had to spend months and months working out how to do them sober. With hindsight I should have put the effort into relaxation techniques as I'm sure tension is the greatest barrier to improving my playing further.
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#8 Guest: VH2_*

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Posted 29 April 2012 - 09:22

To become a fluent improviser you have to (temporarily at least) stop judging the results of your improvisations, and just do it. A little alcohol might help (by allowing you to experience something like the right state of mind) but it is not a solution.
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#9 tomgwyther

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Posted 09 May 2012 - 22:50

One technique i teach my students when trying to get them to improvise is to start with something they're familiar with: Scales.

Requires one piano/keyboard + one metronome or similar.

e.g.
Start with a chord (D minor seventh) in your left hand
Then whilst holding the chord, play a D Dorian scale (C major from D to D) rhythmically up and down. just like you would in an exam.

Next, whilst still holding the D minor chord, try varying how long each note of the scale is. e.g as you run through DEFGABCD; make some notes as crotchets; some as minims, then maybe add a few quavers. All the time still just going up and down the scale.

Next, start missing out notes here and there. e.g. play DEF-GA-C, varying the length of each note.

If you get stuck, just go back a step until you are comfortable to move on to the next step.

Later, try adding a few 'passing' notes. in the above example, G# is a good one, use it sparingly though.

Finally, start using more than one octave and throw in a few arpeggios.
and hey presto, you're soloing - Over D minor.


Now repeat this process with all the other keys, and their relative minors!
oh, and don't forget to learn your modes and their relative chords. Learn them, play them and look good whilst you're doing it!

That should keep you busy!
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#10 windy

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Posted 23 May 2012 - 17:29

I have an old Guildhall jazz exam book and backing CD from before they joined with Trinity (goes to find it) called "Progressive guide to melodic jazz improvisation" which is a really boring title but it is BRILLIANT for starting out with improv. It has a structure that leads you along in easy steps, giving you examples of scales or notes to base your improv on.

I think it is all about losing one's inhibitions at the start, and not being afraid to play stuff that you would not want other people to listen to - it takes time to get to improvise like a pro, and there is a lot of learning to do along the way. Half the fun is noodling about and suddenly realising "wow those few bars were really good, now how did I do that..."

I think the book is still available - possibly published by TG now?

Have fun!
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#11 silverfoxx

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Posted 09 June 2012 - 14:18

QUOTE(windy @ May 23 2012, 06:29 PM) View Post

I have an old Guildhall jazz exam book and backing CD from before they joined with Trinity (goes to find it) called "Progressive guide to melodic jazz improvisation" which is a really boring title but it is BRILLIANT for starting out with improv. It has a structure that leads you along in easy steps, giving you examples of scales or notes to base your improv on.

I think it is all about losing one's inhibitions at the start, and not being afraid to play stuff that you would not want other people to listen to - it takes time to get to improvise like a pro, and there is a lot of learning to do along the way. Half the fun is noodling about and suddenly realising "wow those few bars were really good, now how did I do that..."

I think the book is still available - possibly published by TG now?

Have fun!


Hi Jelly Roll,

Sounds like there are several things going on here.

Trepidation, the nervous I can't do this is negative re-inforcement thing which may be leading to you being too up tight to improvise.

You need to relax. Be confident that whatever rubbish, you come up with when you try to improvise, is your rubbish. No doubt others won't be so critical of your efforts.

There's no ABC of improvisation otherwise by default it won't be improvisation if you have to copy someone else.

That said there are some things which jazz aficionados expect to be present during a piece.

Most improvisation has an element of jazz runs based upon jazz scales and some snappy rhythmic syncopated play on a theme. Others include something obviously ripped from a very well known tune or song, or even a very well known intro or well known riff.

Something well known is a good place to start when starting your own improv ., and build your riff from there. Perhaps use sketches from other well known jazz melodies.

The scat singing thing is a very good idea. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald and hear how she seems to be able to come up with endless riffs improvised from the tune. But if you look closely at what she's doing you may recognise some of the suggestions I mention above.

Most importantly enjoy yourself , relax and get as far away from counting in the classical style as you can. Time to fly Jelly roll.
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#12 lingle

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Posted 27 June 2012 - 12:59

My nine-year-old (electric guitar) explained to me that to start you just run up and down the relevant pentatonic scale, leaving the improvised tune room to "breathe" from time to time. His rock improvisation is really good. He's added more complex stuff in now but that seemed a really firm foundation.

It seems that the inherent technque difficulties that you hit whilst doing this on the instrument (string crossing for fiddle, speed of repeated notes or change of hand position for piano) often dictate the length of the notes and the timings of the pauses. I find it really useful to work with those, not against them. A little motif that would sound stiff if I crossed strings sounds great if done on one string, and then you can try it on different strings - two don't work, but one does - and then add the one that does to the repertoire. Not quite sure what the piano analogy is there but hopefully that means something....


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#13 Alicia Ocean

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Posted 27 June 2012 - 13:12

I'll second that. - Get to know your pentatonic scales really well.
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#14 Norway

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Posted 27 June 2012 - 22:06

Have you listened to enough music in the style you are trying to improvise in? If not, then you won't have any tools to improvise with, and the task will be impossible. You need quite alot of sound experience in the bank in order to have something to draw on. Good luck anyway! smile.gif
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#15 lingle

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Posted 15 July 2012 - 16:19

I've had a bit of a breakthrough in the last month with improvision, hope no-one minds if I share on this thread.

1. As said before, my 9 year old told me to start with pentatonic scales.
2. I also mentioned already the need to work with not against my instrument (mainly fiddle just now).


ok, here's the breakthrough. I started listening to jazz/folk pieces I really liked and started to try to copy the fiddle solo. Some solos are easy, some are hard, some are playable but would need me to be playing very high exposed notes that could easily go wrong.

So I started to cheat. Going an octave down. Repeating the way the riff had been done first time round part of the chord cycle in order to avoid a difficult bit.

These switches then sometimes meant I was working against the violin - unnecessary string changes or position shifts, or fewer of the notes that produce the good ringing tones on a violin.

So when that happened, I tried switching up or down a string, or tried substituting a good ringing note, or a note that's easy to slide up to, for the octave-down-version of the original.

It didn't take long before all this started to sound not like the version I'd been copying, but like my own version I've now tried this on Bob Dylan's "Desire" album as well (sort of gypsy violin) - and it worked. And I've tried it on Bruce Springsteen's folk rock "seeger sessions" album - which was harder because that is real jazz violin, but once I calmed down a little and figured out what the basic chords were, it worked again.

So my firm view now is yes - have a memory band and yes - listen to Stephan Grapelli - just as in classical violin we might listen to Menuhin. But ultimately this is music you make with your fingers then assess aurally. You don't have some mystical insight and instantly play it
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